Seasons by the Sea: 13 Chefs, 3 Fish: A Whole Lot of Wow

Navy Beach in Montauk sponsored a chefs’ team-building event for the Barcelona Wine Bar and Restaurant group, with profits going to benefit the Navy SEAL Foundation
Three teams of chefs from Barcelona Wine Bar competed with fish they caught off Montauk and local ingredients to see who could put together the best meal. This spread came from a team working with striped bass. Laura Donnelly

What happens when 13 chefs from 13 restaurants around the country come to Montauk to fish for striped bass, fluke, and bluefish, and then form three teams, prepare their catch-paired side dishes, and compete to win in their category? Crazy good food, that’s what happens!

On Sept. 6, Navy Beach in Montauk sponsored a chefs’ team-building event for the Barcelona Wine Bar and Restaurant group, with profits going to benefit the Navy SEAL Foundation. Additional food and drinks were donated by Amber Waves Farm, the Montauk Brewing Company, and Paumanok Winery. Rudi Bonicelli, a co-founder (with Sean Barrett) of Dock to Dish Montauk, made sure these landlubbers caught enough fish for the event. 

The striped bass were plentiful, as were the bluefish, but alas, there were no fluke that day, which meant one of the teams had to switch gears and form a second striped bass team. It is worth noting that some of these chefs had never fished before, nor had they ever dealt with that Rodney Dangerfield of the sea, bluefish. Christopher Lee, culinary director of the Barcelona Wine Bar group, also pointed out that none of them had ever cooked with fish so fresh that it was still firm from rigor mortis, making the raw and ceviche-style items more challenging.

I arrived early enough to catch the mayhem in the kitchen. Leyla Marchetto, co-owner of Navy Beach, was cool as a cucumber while leading me around and introducing me to everyone. Navy Beach, located on Fort Pond Bay, has around 80 to 90 seats and the kitchen is tight. Even after a long day on the water (with some chefs feeling a little “green around the gills”), they were jolly and peppy as they prepped enormous salt crusts to encase striped bass, pickled bluefish, and finished ethereal corn puddings.

After a little happy hour spent sipping rosé and nibbling on ceviche, crab cakes, and Yunnan ribs provided by Navy Beach (all very delicious), it was time to eat and judge and judge and eat again.

Three tables were set up around the dining room. Team Fluke, now Team Striped Bass Number One, served striped bass crudo with sour orange, escabeche, salt-crusted with agrodolce, whole roasted with green grapes, and pan-seared with pimenton oil. The paired side dishes were charred jalapeño slaw, buckwheat salad with peaches and macadamia nuts, faro with summer vegetables and feta, corn pudding, and kale salad. 

All of the dishes were outstanding, but in particular the salt-crusted striped bass with agrodolce. The salt crust makes a dramatic presentation when cracked open, and it keeps the fish remarkably moist. Agrodolce is an Italian sweet-sour sauce with onions or shallots, and this one complimented the mild fish perfectly. This was prepared by John Iatrellis of New Haven, Conn. The corn pudding, prepared by Christopher Lee, also brought people back for seconds.

The second striped bass team made bass wrapped in parchment (en papillote), stew, esqueixada, and pan-roasted. The sides were tomato salad, morcilla fritters, creamed corn with pimenton popcorn(!), and grilled asparagus. The striped bass in parchment was a standout, as were the morcilla fritters, made with blood sausage. The creamed corn had a hint of tarragon, and this dish also brought the guests back for more.

Last, but certainly not least, was Team Bluefish, with the fish pickled, smoked, whole roasted, grilled, and in a paté. The sides were summer vegetable caponata, succotash, cucumber panzanella, roasted tomatoes, and roasted fennel with jalapeño. Every single bluefish dish was excellent, in particular the smoked, the pickled, the grilled, and the paté. Being strong and oily, this fish seemed to be particularly well suited to the zesty seasonings often used by the Barcelona Wine Bar chefs, which are Spanish tapas bars with a bit of South American flare. The roasted fennel with jalapeño (prepared by the lone female chef, Farah Masani) was especially good, as was the succotash.

The voting method was no more than grabbing some sand dollars out of a jar and putting them in the three jars at each chef’s station. I confess I put two sand dollars in the Bluefish Team’s jar because I like an underdog, I like bluefish, and most of the team was from the D.C. area. Apparently, I was not alone in my fondness for blues and what can be done with them, because Team Bluefish won the competition.

This was the Barcelona Wine Bar group’s second team building outing. Last year its chefs traveled to a farm in Ohio and created a vegetable-centric menu. Christopher Lee pointed out that this year’s outing was a real education for the chefs, who learned how Dock to Dish is literally transforming how we can get freshly caught fish directly to the consumer. From far, far away, Sean Barrett wrote about the evening: “This specific event was very meaningful for us, because it put the Dock to Dish mission of reconnecting our community to the local fishery on display in a very delicious way. Navy Beach is an original founding member of our restaurant program, and Rudi Bonicelli is not only a co-founder of Dock to Dish — but also one of the most talented, knowledgeable, and reliable rod and reel fishermen around. Our team has been on the road a lot over the past few years, establishing new Dock to Dish programs in California, Canada, Costa Rica, and beyond — but for this event we imported chefs from across the country back to the place where it all began. Having Leyla and Rudi pull off such a wildly successful reception was very cool in a homecoming kind of way, and it was all done to support a great cause. There have been such rave reviews from everyone that participated that we are determined to make this an annual event. I already have chefs looking to participate next year, and people asking about tickets.”

Mr. Bonicelli, a bit more spare with words, wrote: “Glad everyone had fun. The chefs did great, they got to see how fish end up on the plate Dock to Dish style.”So the 13 chefs got to experience fishing and Montauk hospitality, Navy Beach raised money for the Navy SEAL Foundation, and the kind sponsors provided the additional food and drink. 

Thank you all, you are angels.

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Glen Hill Jr., whose team won the “hook ’em and cook ’em” competition at Navy Beach in Montauk, sat with a selection of bluefish dishes. Laura Donnelly